IN a small pharmacy in the bustling shopping area of Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, the rhinoceros horn was placed prominently on sale for almost $25,000 per kilogram (2.2 lbs.).
Despite pressure from the United States to curb the trade in rhino horns and tiger bones, and official bans in China and Taiwan, Hong Kong has become the smuggling hub for such items used in Chinese medicines.
Although the grisly trade has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1973, the imports continue because of East Asia's economic boom and the Chinese belief, more than 4,000 years old, that a pinch of ground rhino horn has healing qualities.
``We are being asked to sacrifice a civilization that has lasted thousands of years,'' says a Chinese medicine dealer in Hong Kong.
In what many environmental groups hailed as a significant step for conservation, the US has warned China and Taiwan three times that they were violating the international ban on rhino horn and tiger products, which is aimed at ending the worldwide decline of both animals.
President Clinton has until March to decide whether to impose trade sanctions on both countries for violating international conservation programs.
Under pressure from the US, China forbade the endangered-species trade in October, ordered existing medicine stocks to be registered and sealed, and announced that it would step up efforts to enforce wildlife protection laws already on the books.
Wang Zhanyun, an official of the Administrative Office of Import and Export of Endangered Species here, said China had been tightening control of the trade in recent years, resulting in losses of $350 million annually to China's booming pharmaceutical industry, and encouraging synthetic substitutes, according to the New China News Agency.
To counteract its negative image as a major market for the illegal wildlife trade, China has announced plans to expand its system of nature preserves from 450 to more than 500, representing 125 million acres, or 5 percent of its total land area. Shen Maocheng, vice minister of forestry, was quoted by the New China News Agency as saying that China will include special reserves for rare species such as the giant panda, crested ibis, Chinese alligator, and wild horses. In recent months, China has executed several poachers caught peddling panda hides.
But Western observers and environmental activists predict it will be difficult to rein in the booming smuggling trade aimed at meeting continuing Chinese demand for the rare species. The effort is particularly difficult in the provinces where, Western environmental activists charge, local officials connive with peddlers in wildlife products.
Hong Kong environmental officials also have caught diplomatic passport-holders abusing their privilege to smuggle endangered species out of the colony. Last month, a Bhutanese princess was arrested in Taiwan for smuggling 22 rhino horns and nine bear gallbladders from Hong Kong. The items had a street value of up to $1 million.
In Hong Kong, which is the transit point for banned animal parts coming from Africa and India, the price of rhino horn averages more than $24,000 per kilogram, rhino hide $768 per kilogram, and bear gallbladders almost $10,000 per kilogram.
United Nations conservation officials estimate that China's stockpile of 8.5 million tons of rhino horn is the largest in the world. Much of it may have been bought from Middle East countries over the last two decades and can still be used for local consumption outside the international prohibition. Overseas Chinese visitors often stock up while on visits to China, sidestepping the international ban.
THAT, environmentalists say, is fueling demand for new supplies channeled mainly through Hong Kong or repackaged there for shipment elsewhere. Hong Kong dealers often act as agents for Taiwanese buyers and make trips to Guangzhou and other areas of southern China to buy available stocks.
``Local Chinese pharmacies offer me horns and products from rhinos without even asking for a prescription,'' says Heena Patel, spokeswoman of the Hong Kong Environmental Investigation Agency. ``These people who claim to be healers are responsible for the large and extremely lucrative trade.'' But with China's once-thriving tiger population reduced to a little more than 25 animals, Chinese apothecaries have turned to Indian poachers to satisfy demand.
Earlier this year, Indian conservationists noticed a decline in the number of tigers in special reserves, prompting the Chinese and Indian governments to agree to cooperate on antipoaching measures.